The day that our group traveled from Germany down into the Alps to Austria, culminating in our visit to Innsbruck, was a national holiday for the two countries. It was Thursday, May 26th, or to many residents in European countries, Ascension Day. In German it is Himmelfahrt, and being on a Thursday, turned into a four-day weekend for many in the country. We shared the road with thousands of vehicles all headed to the beautiful Alps for the extended break. This turned the Autobahn, famed for its unlimited speed limit, into the more familiar experiences of I-40 or I-65 over July 4th Weekend! What struck my attention is that the country of Germany still recognizes many church holidays and festivals as national holidays. As a matter of fact, the weekend after we returned home was another national holiday tied to Pentecost called Whit Sunday and Monday or Pfingsten.
The fact that Germany, a nation that seems to becoming more and more secular, still observes Christian festivals as national holidays continues to fascinate me. Why is this the case in a more secular country and not the case in the United States, where large pockets of the country (such as ours) are much more religious than European lands? Primarily, this is because Germany and many other European countries for most of their existence did not experience or codify the separation of church and state. Each territory within Germany (formerly the Holy Roman Empire) was either predominantly Catholic or predominately Lutheran, yet both settings maintained ecclesiastical holidays and festivals within the national holiday calendar – even up to today. In the United States and the development of the Constitution in 1787, the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state meant that no one denomination would predominate over another throughout the federal government. In the context of the founding fathers, the term secular meant that the government would not be dominated by any particular Christian faith or viewpoint. Therefore, our holidays have taken on a more secular flavor than our European counterparts. Of course, we celebrate Christmas and Thanksgiving, which definitely have religious connections, most of our festivities are non-religious, such as New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, etc.
Should American, Christian citizens bemoan this fact that we don’t have a long list of Christian holidays recognized on the national calendar? This pastor thinks not. Does the fact that Germany or other countries in Europe having Christian holy days as national holidays make much of an influence on the spiritual zeitgeist of those countries? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no. Actually, we are seeing countries like Germany becoming more and more “non-religious.” While we are seeing similar trends in the United States, especially in the North and the Northwest, that movement in Europe speeds more apace. Therefore, what is the benefit to having national Christian holidays if the country is more and more becoming “un-Christian”? That, of course, is a rhetorical question.
Amos 5 tells us of the dangers of cultural religion without the corresponding fervor of faith and genuine devotion to obedience to God’s Word. The voice of God is heard in verse 21-23 in stark language against such outward-only signs of religiosity, “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them…Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.” Festivals without fervor, religion without righteousness, and joviality without justice are abominations in the Lord’s sight. Never forget this.
God continues in this passage to tell us what He truly desires, “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) God desires the changed heart, the obedient life, and the faithful follower, not someone who just gives lip-service to the Gospel or makes sure to observe a holiday on a calendar.
This also applies to our “non-religious” holidays of the United States. We have just finished the Independence Day weekend hopefully with great traditions of family fun and fireworks. But don’t let that be the only aspects of the holiday you emphasized. We should remember that we are celebrating the fact that thirteen colonies stood up together for independence and freedom, declaring that all men are created equal. No matter where we find our country today – with all its problems and challenges that lie ahead – may we never forget the ideals our Founding Fathers instilled within us as Americans on July 4, 1776. Let us not allow holidays to simply be days off from work. May the real purposes of those holidays form us and shape us into better men and women, better citizens, better community members.
-This article was published in the July 5th Edition of the Weakley County Press.
-Photo courtesy of unsplash.com